80 days after apparent kidnapping, Yingying Zhang remains missing


Photo Courtesy of UIPD

Photo of Yingying Zhang.

By Jessica Bursztynsky, News editor

Shortly after arriving on campus for the first time, Yingying Zhang — a visiting scholar in the College of ACES — was running late to a meeting to sign a lease with a landlord on June 9.

The 26-year-old Chinese woman was last seen on surveillance footage entering a black Saturn Astra, allegedly driven by former University physics student Brendt Christensen, 28, on North Goodwin Avenue in Champaign at 2 p.m.

Many specifics of the case have not been revealed in the subsequent weeks, but Christensen is in custody, awaiting trial. Zhang is presumed dead, according to the FBI.

The initial process

The University of Illinois Police Department issued a Facebook post on June 10 asking for help in the search for Zhang, who had not been reached after several attempts to contact her.

Police Chief Jeff Christensen sent out a community safety notice two days later, asking for continued help. He noted that while it was not clear whether she was in any danger, the UIPD is working to bring about any information.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

On June 12, surveillance footage showed Zhang entering the passenger side of a black Saturn Astra, after speaking to the unidentifiable driver for a few moments.

“We are deeply troubled anytime we believe a member of our campus community may be in danger, but we are very grateful for our community’s support for Ms. Zhang,” wrote Jeff Christensen in a June 13 notice, adding that the FBI has become involved in the case.

The FBI announced a $10,000 reward for those with information leading to Zhang’s location, who had been missing for eight days by that point.

Zhang’s father, boyfriend and aunt arrived in the United States from China on June 17. Her mother and younger brother arrived on Aug. 19, as they waited for Zhang’s mother to heal from the emotional and physical distress the case was causing, according to Zhang’s boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou.

An additional $40,000 reward — later raised to $50,000 — was announced on June 19 by Zhang’s family, who was working with the Champaign County Crime Stoppers, to help locate Zhang.

It was also announced that Zhang’s case was a national priority for the FBI.

Photo Courtesy of UIPD.
Photo of Yingying Zhang.

The findings and the arrest

The black Saturn Astra that was presumably used in the kidnapping of Zhang was located on June 27, according to the FBI. Yet no details were released at that time and an arrest had not been made in the case.

An arrest warrant and criminal complaint was issued on June 30 for the arrest of Christensen, charging him with violating the statute of 18 U.S. Code § 1201.

The federal statute states “Whoever unlawfully seizes, confines, inveigles, decoys, kidnaps, abducts, or carries away and holds for ransom or reward or otherwise any person when … the person is willfully transported in interstate or foreign commerce.”

Even though the alleged kidnapping was committed in Illinois, Christensen is facing a federal charge rather than falling under the state’s jurisdiction.

“The fact that the car that was allegedly used in the kidnapping is part of interstate commerce is why this is a federal crime,” said law professor Andrew Leipold. “It is what gives federal courts jurisdiction over this case.” 

Christensen was denied bail by Judge Eric Long on July 5 and is to be held in jail indefinitely.

After listening to both prosecutor’s and defendant’s arguments — Long ruled the suspect as both a flight risk and a danger to the community due to evidence presented by Bryan Freres, assistant U.S. attorney.

Freres’s argument included allegations that Christensen attended a public vigil for Zhang and explained — while under surveillance — what makes “an ideal victim” as well as pointing out other candidates that fit the criteria.

Freres also argued that Christensen was caught on tape describing Zhang’s kidnapping and how she resisted him when he brought her to his apartment. Christensen also allegedly threatened the safety of another person who knew some form of incriminating information.

A federal grand jury indicted Christensen of kidnapping on July 12 and he was formally arraigned on July 20.

At the arraignment, Christensen pleaded not guilty and his pretrial was set for Aug. 28.

One of Christensen’s three attorneys, Tom Bruno said he expects the case to be pushed back, possibly several months, at the pretrial.

They’ll keep rescheduling it until everybody is ready,” Bruno said.

The defense team has just now been receiving discoveries and information regarding their client.

“We are reviewing thousands of pages of discovery materials, which consist of a variety of reports,” Bruno told the Daily Illini on Aug. 23. “We are still awaiting more investigative reports, which we have been told will be coming in the future which we don’t have yet. So we will review all of what the government claims is their evidence and whether or not the evidence is as they describe it.”

Photo Courtesy of UIPD.
Photo of Yingying Zhang.

Community support

A GoFundMe campaign to support the Zhang family’s living expenses was set up on June 17 by the U of I Community Credit Union.

The initial goal was to raise $30,000 but was quickly surpassed by $78,826 in donations by June 20.

As the case draws on and Zhang still has not been located, the fundraising goal was raised to $500,000. As of publication, a total of 3,354 people donated $145,347.

The funds are supporting the family’s six month rental of property in Urbana, food, travel fees and will hopefully launch a private investigation, said Xiaolin Hou, Zhang’s boyfriend.

Emily Lux, who has been aiding the family, said at a press conference on Aug. 22 that there are two reasons the family has not started their own investigation.

The first being that the FBI is still investigating the case and the second that the family does not have sufficient funds. Lux estimated a private investigation to cost anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000.

As for University support, several statements supporting the family and search for Zhang have been made throughout the past two months.

“There are no words that can explain why or how such a terrible thing should happen nor is there anything I might say that will ease the grief of any of you who knew her,” Chancellor Robert Jones wrote in a Massmail sent out the night of Christensen’s arrest and it was announced Zhang was presumed dead.

“I ask all of you to help to ensure that Yingying is remembered for her kindness, her gentleness and her smile,” he added.

A campus-wide memorial was set for July 1 in order to celebrate Zhang’s life, but was postponed out of respect for the Zhang family and “in accordance with their wishes,” Jones wrote that morning.

On Aug. 22 Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs, announced a yellow ribbon campaign to show continued support for the family, whom she has been working with since their arrival on campus.

Those who donate to Zhang’s GoFundMe campaign will receive a small yellow ribbon pin, with the intent of raising more awareness to the case.

[email protected]